Council OKs theater, keeps some land industrial

Editor's note: This is the second part of a story we started yesterday outlining the issues surrounding a proposed new movie theater in Northfield.

Owatonna CinemaThe Northfield City Council, faced with a need for both commercial and light industrial land, reached a compromise Monday that maintains a little of each.

"I like this better than the last meeting," said Steven Payne, vice president of Lakes & Rivers Cinema, which plans to bring a multi-screen cinema to seven acres along Canon Road, just off Hwy. 3. He was referring to the May 23 meeting of the Planning Commission, which rejected the land use designation needed as a first step to rezoning for a theater.  

For the details on the vote and much, much more, read the rest of the story...

The 6-1 council vote split the original 31-acre site into two segments, the southwest 22 acres for commercial use, while leaving the northeast area light industrial. Payne and property owner James Gleason still will have to go through formal rezoning for the theater, but Monday's vote clearly was an endorsement of the plan.

"We hope to be open by the holidays," Payne said, adding that it would take an aggressive schedule to meet that goal. He's planning a building between 30,000 and 35,000 square feet with six to 10 screens. Total cost for construction and equipment will run about $5.5 million. He'll use about seven acres of the site.

Landowner James Gleason said the remaining land to be rezoned would be needed for related businesses, such as restaurants.

Councilors stress vote isn't against downtown
Unlike the heated debates over the arrival of Target and Cub, the discussion Monday drew one speaker for and one against. The only real issue was how much land could be saved for industrial use, not whether a change would be made.

Payne, a St. Olaf grad, said he knew the town well and he couldn't find another site better suited to a theater. Councilors and the developers stressed the decision wasn't a vote against downtown. All pointed out that there isn't enough room downtown to create a new theater, and that train traffic would cause noise and vibration problems.

Now that the wheels are in motion for a new theater, it will take some creativity to bring movies downtown in some form. 

'Indie' theaters aren’t such rebels after all
Several people have suggested that Northfield lure an independent theater, such as the Lagoon Cinema or Uptown Theater in Minneapolis or the Edina Cinema in Edina. Well, it only takes a few minutes to find the website for Landmark Theatres, the very corporate parent of these chic art house theaters. Landmark has 213 screens in 57 theaters in 15 states. The company targets large urban cities with huge pools of patrons. The shabby chic atmosphere is part of the image, and the chain has built enough clout in the industry to keep the competition at bay.

“One of the reasons is that Landmark has those theaters all over the country,” said Stephen Mann of Mann Theatres. “They can offer a distributor a package instead of the distributor booking one theater at a time. It's hard to compete with them.” And the Manns learned from experience. “For years we had a theater in St. Paul (showing independent movies), and even there it didn’t work,” he said.

Movie clubs, non-profits, movie cafes offer hope
Most downtown movie theaters are landmarks, with historic architecture and nonprofit groups willing to do restoration efforts and offer financial support. Cinema Treasures, a website devoted to chronicling the stories of movie theaters around the country, tells the happy endings—and the sad ones.

Experts I interviewed and my own research indicate downtown advocates might consider having movie nights at the Grand, or maybe cinema cafe nights, offering drinks or dinner and a movie. Another option might be adding movie screening capability to a conference space included in the discussions for a new or expanded library. Others have mentioned that a theater might be included in Carleton College's plans for the former middle school.

The bright spot I mentioned at the beginning of yesterday's article literally popped up just before I was ready to file this story. I happened on a news clip from Wisconsin, where the Jackson County Chronicle reports that Mike Radue of Green Bay has bought the recently closed movie theater in Black River Falls. He plans to make it into a movie café, serving pizza and other food at tables where customers can watch movies. He reportedly owns cinema cafes in Manitowoc and DePere and is building one in Menasha.

Be warned, though, that all three cities are in growing areas of Wisconsin with a higher population base and more traffic. But I felt it was only fair to mention it. Again, the concept may work as an occasional series if it isn't a commercial option.

Well, now you know as much as I do. If you have any options you'd like to see more information about, mention it here and I'll give it a look.

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Terrific article, terrific news.


Good suggestion by Bruce Morlan.  If this goes forward, it should be with LID practices.  Let's stop talking about it and actually put some out there...   I appreciate the post - thanks!

Great news!

I see that Northfield is continuing to develop along Hwy 3 in a rather standard fashion. I would like to make a couple of suggestions based on lessons learned in Dundas. These are things the people should be watching for as the development unfolds.

First: integration of this site into Northfield's and Dundas's bike trail plan. This site should be a biking and walking destination for the local population. For this to happen, it should:

  • Include good, safe connectivity to trails from the north, the east and the south (perhaps even from the west if a second trail is built along the east bank of the Cannon River).
  • Include good, safe premium parking for bikes (low but wide lighting, good bike racks, near the doors (now that's what I mean by "premium")

Second: know the market - the developer will soon know how many people this site needs to attract to be profitable (that's how they will decide between 8 screens vs other options). Find out what that answer is. If it is more than the immediate area provides, then we will want to assess where the rest of the served population will be coming from and how they are going to get to the theater. To help mitigate traffic problems caused by growth, Dundas and Bridgewater Township have forged an alliance such that increased traffic is accounted for beyond just the local city jurisdiction. A similar strategy combing the three government entities might be appropriate in this situation.

Third: look for low impact development (LID) - we (at least in Dundas and Bridgewater) have a real soft spot for low impact development -- it makes us feel all warm and comfortable. This sentiment can be embedded in the design, for example:

  • by mitigating the runoff from the large parking lot through the use of semipermiable surfaces or rain gardens and swales;
  • by considering how to keep light pollution minimized by good design and choice of parking lot lights;
  • by designing the entire site so that "drive-movie-walk-eat-walk then drive-away" is possible rather than forcing (by the layout) "drive-movie-drive-eat-drive".

Most of these ideas are really really cheap if they are done before ground is broken, coming in after the fact and retro-fitting them is really unpleasant. I, for one, look forward to nice walks or rides to a nice theater, maybe then I won't feel quite so guilty when I order the tub-o-popcorn(TM)!


Thank you City Council for acting in the BEST intrest of the citizens of Northfield and over-ruling the Planning Commission's recent vote on the zoning change.  There is life in Northfield other than the downtown!  Despite one Planning Commision member's ridiculous opinion, there is no need to annex Dundas.

Let the new owner know

Bruce, you and others really should contact the new theater developer with all these good ideas. He's young and very committed to Northfield, he might be willing to consider the ideas if they're presented before the plans are finished.

The end of the small town

Six to ten screens is obscenely large. Not only that, but the council is encouring more strip-style development along Highway 3. The location not only puts us one step closer to the purely generic American town, but it makes for poor bicycling/walking -- especially now that the walking/biking trail across the highway from this site has been ripped up in multiple locations. Ripped up for the sake of other development, mind you. I'm only in high school now, but I'd like to think that I'll visit Northfield as an adult. Or I could just visit Apple Valley -- in a few years, what'll be the difference?

I'm only in high school now,

_I'm only in high school now, but I'd like to think that I'll visit Northfield as an adult. Or I could just go to Apple Valley -- in a few years, what'll be the difference?_

None. No, wait -- Apple Valley has a *Pizza Hut*. That's totally different.

Walkers/bikers have plenty of space

Millions of dollars are being spent on the Mill Town Trails - plenty of space for bikers/walkers/skateboarders, etc. - we even have a bike lane in the middle of the new HWY 3 (who came up with that design?).  Developing HWY 3 with businesses that people who LIVE in Northfield can use is a good thing.  There are plenty of tourist type shops in the downtown area.

Structured play only

_Millions of dollars are being spent on the Mill Town Trails - plenty of space for bikers/walkers/skateboarders, etc._

Replacing the idea that one can walk/bike to get errands done with a "You may walk/bike in this area, from here to here, but not outside of here and only from 8am to 8pm" structure is the folly of suburban planning. Unstructured travel and play just another casualty of this sort of development.

Placing entertainment and restaurants in car-only areas is a symptom of the very worst of suburban sprawl. It's remote, unfriendly, artificial, and soulless.


Exactly what I would have said. Mill Town Trail is great for relaxing bicycling, but it's not worth crap for practical bicycling or walking use.

Where I live (not technically in-town, but literally meters from the city limits) there is no reasonable way to get anywhere outside my neighborhood without going through at least two people's yards. It's downright dumb to build anything that would be within reasonable walking distance to local businesses and not providing any reasonable way to get there.

Last February, when there was talk on the ISSUES list about kids walking to school, the biggest criticism was that there's simply no safe way for a lot of kids to reach their schools.

We may have made these mistakes in the past, but let's not in these new developments: we need good, practical non-automobile ways to get to this theater.